Faced with technological and political upheaval, reformers decided that Chinese would need to change in order to survive.
Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern
Reviewed by Ian Buruma
The New Yorker, January, 17, 2022
The late, great sinologist Simon Leys once pointed out a peculiar paradox. China is the world’s oldest surviving civilization, and yet very little material of its past remains—far less than in Europe or India. Through the centuries, waves of revolutionary iconoclasts have tried to smash everything old; the Red Guards, in the nineteen-sixties, were following an ancient tradition. The Chinese seldom built anything for eternity, anyway, nothing like the cathedrals of Europe. And what survived from the past was often treated with neglect.
So what accounts for the longevity of Chinese civilization? Leys believed it was the written word, the richness of a language employing characters, partly ideographic, that have hardly changed over two thousand years. As Jing Tsu, a scholar of Chinese at Yale, observes in “Kingdom of Characters: The Language Revolution That Made China Modern” (Riverhead), China had long equated writing “with authority, a symbol of reverence for the past and a talisman of legitimacy.” This is why mastery of classical Chinese used to be so important. To become an official in imperial China, one had to compose precise scholarly essays on Confucian philosophy, an arduous task that very few could complete. Even Chairman Mao, who incited his followers to destroy every vestige of tradition, proudly displayed his prowess as a calligrapher, establishing himself as the bearer of Chinese civilization.
Leys was right about the continuity of the Chinese written word. But zealots, intent on erasing old incarnations of Chinese civilization in order to make way for new ones, have often targeted the written language, too. One of Mao’s models was the first Qin emperor (259-210 B.C.), a much reviled despot who ordered the construction of the Great Wall and was perhaps the first major book burner in history. He wanted to destroy all the Confucian classics, and supposedly buried Confucian scholars alive. Mao’s only criticism of his hated predecessor was that he had not been radical enough. It was under the Qin emperor that the Chinese script was standardized.
But, if the endurance of written Chinese is a civilizational achievement, it has not always been seen as an asset. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Chinese worried that the complexity of the language’s written characters would put China at a hopeless disadvantage in a world dominated by the Roman alphabet. How the Chinese language and its writing system have weathered the modern waves of iconoclasm and been renewed since the turn of the past century is the subject of Tsu’s book.
Chinese certainly presents unique difficulties. To be literate in the language, a person must be able to read and write at least three thousand characters. To enjoy a serious book, a reader must know several thousand more. Learning to write is a feat of memory and graphic skill: a Chinese character is composed of strokes, to be made in a particular sequence, following the movements of a brush, and quite a few characters involve eighteen or more strokes.
Tsu begins her story in the late nineteenth century, when China was deep in crisis. After bloody uprisings, humiliating defeats in the Opium Wars, and forced concessions—predatory foreign powers were grabbing what spoils they could from a poor, exhausted, divided continent—the last imperial dynasty was falling apart. Chinese intellectuals, influenced by then fashionable social-Darwinist ideas, saw China’s crisis in existential terms. Could the Chinese language, with its difficult writing system, survive? Would Chinese civilization itself survive? The two questions were, of course, inextricably linked.
In this cultural panic, many intellectuals were ashamed of the poverty and the illiteracy of the rural population, and of the weakness of a decadent and hidebound imperial élite. They hoped for a complete overhaul of Chinese tradition. Qing-dynasty rule was brought to an end in 1911, but reformers sought to cleanse imperial culture itself. The authority of a tradition based on various schools of Confucian philosophy had to be smashed before China could rise in the modern world. The classical style of the language, elliptical and complex, was practiced by only a small number of highly educated people, for whom it functioned rather like Latin in the Catholic Church, as a pathway to high office. Reformers saw it as an impediment both to mass literacy and to political progress. Before long, classical Chinese was supplanted by a more vernacular prose in official discourse, books, and newspapers. In fact, a more vernacular form of written Chinese, called baihua, had already been introduced, during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). So there was a precedent for making written Chinese more accessible.
More radical modernizers hoped to do away with characters altogether and replace them with a phonetic script, either in Roman letters or in a character-derived adaptation, as had been the practice for many centuries in Japanese and Korean. A linguist, Qian Xuantong, famously argued that Confucian thought could be abolished only if Chinese characters were eradicated. “And if we wish to get rid of the average person’s childish, naive, and barbaric ways of thinking,” he went on, “the need to abolish characters becomes even greater.” Lu Xun, the most admired Chinese essayist and short-story writer of the twentieth century, offered a blunter prognosis in 1936: “If the Chinese script is not abolished, China will certainly perish!”
Many attempts have been made to transliterate Chinese in the Latin alphabet. These range from a system invented by two nineteenth-century British diplomats, Thomas Wade and Herbert Giles, to the “Pinyin” system, developed by linguists in the People’s Republic of China, which is different again from various forms of Romanization used in Taiwan.
Difficulties confront all such systems. The time-honored character-based writing system can readily accommodate different modes of pronunciation, even mutually unintelligible dialects. Chinese has a great many homonyms, which transliterations are bound to conflate. And Chinese, unlike Korean or Japanese, is a tonal language; some way of conveying tones is necessary. (Wade-Giles uses superscript numerals; a system developed by the linguist and inventor Lin Yutang uses spelling conventions; Pinyin uses diacritical marks.) The different efforts at Romanization, accordingly, yield very different results. The word for strength, say, is ch’iang2 in Wade-Giles, chyang in Lin’s script, and qiáng in Pinyin.
Characters never were abolished in the Chinese-speaking world, but serious problems remained. How to make a typewriter that could accommodate all these characters? How to create a telegraph system? Tsu details how solutions were found to such technical difficulties—encoding Chinese characters in a telegraph system geared to the alphabet, for example—and to political ones as well. Which characters or Romanized transliterations should prevail? The ones adopted by the People’s Republic of China or by Hong Kong or Taiwan?
Amid the ferment of the early twentieth century, reformers faced a broader question, too: once Chinese traditions were overthrown, what cultural norms should succeed them? Most of the people whom Tsu writes about looked to the United States. Many of them studied at American universities in the nineteen-tens, subsidized by money that the United States received from China as an indemnity after the anti-Western Boxer Rebellion was defeated. Zhou Houkun, who invented a Chinese typewriting machine, studied at M.I.T. Hu Shi, a scholar and a diplomat who helped elevate the vernacular into the national language, went to Cornell. Lin Yutang, who devised a Chinese typewriter, studied at Harvard. Wang Jingchun, who smoothed the way for Chinese telegraphy, said, with more ardor than accuracy, “Our government is American; our constitution is American; many of us feel like Americans.”
This focus on the U.S. might please American readers. But, in the last years of the Qing dynasty and during the early Republican period, Japan was a far more influential model of modern reform. Oddly, Tsu barely mentions this in her book. Japan—whose military victory against Russia in 1905 had been hailed all over Asia as a sign that a modern Asian nation could stand up to the West—was the main conduit for concepts that changed the social, political, cultural, and linguistic landscape in China. More than a thousand Chinese students joined Zhou and Hu as Boxer Indemnity Scholars in the U.S. between 1911 and 1929, but more than eight thousand Chinese were already studying in Japan by 1905. And many schools in China employed Japanese technical and scientific teachers.
It’s true that Japan’s industrial, military, and educational reforms since the Meiji Restoration of 1868 were themselves based on Western models, including artistic movements, such as Impressionism and Surrealism. But these ideas were transmitted to China by Chinese students, revolutionaries, and intellectuals in Japan, and had a direct and lasting impact on written and spoken Chinese. Many scientific and political terms in Chinese—such as “philosophy,” “democracy,” “electricity,” “telephone,” “socialism,” “capitalism,” and “communism”—were coined in Japanese by combining Chinese characters.
Demands for radical reform came to a head in 1919, with a student protest in Beijing, first against provisions in the Treaty of Versailles which allowed Japan to take possession of German territories in China, and then against the classical Confucian traditions that were believed to stand in the way of progress. A gamut of political orientations combined in the so-called New Culture movement, ranging from the John Dewey-inspired pragmatism of Hu Shi to early converts to socialism. Where New Culture protesters could agree, as Tsu notes, was on the critical importance of mass literacy.
Downgrading classical Chinese and promoting colloquial writing was a step in that direction, even if abolishing characters in Chinese remained too radical for many to contemplate. Still, as Tsu says, some Nationalists, who ruled China until 1949, were in favor of at least simplifying the characters, as were the Communists. Nationalist attempts at simplification ran into opposition from conservatives, who wanted to protect traditional Chinese written culture; the Communists were far more radical, and never gave up on the idea of switching to the Roman alphabet. In the Soviet Union, the Roman alphabet had been used in order to impose political uniformity on many different peoples, including Muslims who were used to Arabic script. The Soviets supported and subsidized Chinese efforts to follow their example. For the Communists, as Tsu notes, the goal was simple: “If the Chinese could read easily, they could be radicalized and converted to communism with the new script.”
The long conflict with Japan, from 1931 to 1945, put a temporary stop to language reform. The Nationalists, who did most of the fighting, were struggling simply to survive. The Communists spent more time thinking about ideological matters. Radical language reform began in earnest only after the Nationalists were defeated, in 1949, and forced to retreat to Taiwan. Mao, in the decade that followed, ushered in two linguistic revolutions: Pinyin, the Romanized transcription that became the standard all over China (and now pretty much everywhere else), and so-called simplified Chinese.
The Committee on Script Reform, created in 1952, started by releasing some eight hundred recast characters. More were released, and some were revised, in the ensuing decades. The new characters, made with many fewer strokes, were “true to the egalitarian principles of socialism,” Tsu says. The Communist cadres rejoiced in the fact that “the people’s voices were finally being heard.” Among the beneficiaries were “China’s workers and peasants.” After all, “Mao said that the masses were the true heroes and their opinions must be trusted.”
Tsu rightly credits the Communist government with raising the literacy level in China, which, she tells us, reached ninety-seven per cent in 2018. But we should take with a grain of salt the claim that these gains came from bottom-up agitation. “Nothing like it had ever been attempted in the history of the world,” she writes. The Japanese might beg to differ; ninety per cent of the Japanese population had attended elementary school in 1900. We can also wonder whether the simplified characters played as large a role in China’s high literacy rate as Tsu is inclined to think. In Taiwan and Hong Kong, traditional characters have been left largely intact; if there is proof that children there have much more difficulty in learning to read and write, it would be good to know. Simply being told that “the people’s voices were finally being heard” is not quite sufficient to make that case. And, even if there are benefits to learning a drastically revised script, there are losses, too. Not only are the new characters less elegant but books written in the old style become hard to understand.
That was part of the point. In 1956, Tao-Tai Hsia, then a professor at Yale, wrote that strengthening Communist propaganda was “the chief motivation” of language reform: “The thought of getting rid of parts of China’s cultural past which the Communists deem undesirable through the language process is ever present in the minds of the Communist cultural workers.” This was written during the Cold War, but Hsia was surely right. After all, as Tsu points out, “those who voiced their dissatisfaction with the pinyin reform would be swallowed up in the years of persecution that followed,” and those who grumbled about the simplified characters fared little better.
Tsu assiduously links the story of language reform to technology—we learn much about the heroic efforts to accommodate modern typesetting to the character-based system—and that story continues through the digital era. The speed with which these advances were accomplished is indeed impressive. In the seventies, more than seventy per cent of all circulated print information in China was set in hot-lead type. Today, as Tsu writes excitedly—at times, her style is redolent of Mao-period journals like China Reconstructs—information processing is “the tool that opened the door to the cutting-edge technology-driven future that China’s decades of linguistic reform and state planning at last pried open.”
Tsu celebrates these technical innovations by highlighting the personal stories of key individuals, which often read like traditional Confucian morality tales about terrible hardships overcome by sheer tenacity and hard work. Zhi Bingyi worked on his ideas about a Chinese computer language in a squalid prison cell during the Cultural Revolution, writing his calculations on a teacup after his guards took away even his toilet paper. Wang Xuan, a pioneer of laser typesetting systems, was so hungry during Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward campaign, in 1960, that “his body swelled under the fatigue, but he continued to work relentlessly.” Such anecdotes add welcome color to the technical explanations of phonetic scripts, typewriters, telegraphy, card-catalogue systems, and computers. Sentences like “Finally, through a reverse process of decompression, Wang converted the vector images to bitmaps of dots for digital output” can become wearying.
Today, in the era of standardized word processors and Chinese social-media apps like WeChat, Pinyin and characters are seamlessly connected. Users typically type Pinyin on their keyboards while the screen displays the simplified characters, offering an array of options to resolve homonyms. (Older users may draw the characters on their smartphones.) China will, as Tsu says, “at last have a shot at communicating with the world digitally.” The old struggles over written forms might seem redundant. But the politics of language persists, particularly in the way the government communicates with its citizens.
“Kingdom of Characters” mentions all the major political events, from the Boxer Rebellion to the rise of Xi Jinping. And yet one might get the impression that language development was largely a story of ingenious inventions devised by doughty individuals overcoming enormous technical obstacles. Her account ends on a triumphant note; she remarks that written Chinese is now “being ever more widely used, learned, propagated, studied, and accurately transformed into electronic data. It is about as immortal as a living script can hope to get.” Continuing in the same vein, she writes, “The Chinese script revolution has always been the true people’s revolution—not ‘the people’ as determined by Communist ideology but the wider multitude that powered it with innovators and foot soldiers.”
However much the modernization of language has been influenced by technology, though, it is also part of a much broader political story. Dictatorships shape the way we write and talk and, in many cases, think. (Victor Klemperer’s brilliant analysis of Nazi-speak in his book “LTI”—Lingua Tertii Imperii—remains an invaluable study of the phenomenon.) This, too, is part of the story of how Chinese changed in the modern age. I still shudder at the memory of reading, as a student in the early nineteen-seventies, Maoist publications in Chinese, with their deadwood language, heavy Soviet sarcasm, and endless sentences that sounded like literal translations from Marxist German—the exact opposite of the compressed poeticism of the classical style. But in Mao’s China mastery of this style was as important as writing Confucian essays had been in imperial times. When, back in the seventies, the official Chinese news agency, Xinhua, urged the government to speed up computer technology, its stated aim was to spread the Communist Party’s doctrines more efficiently.
These days, China’s geopolitical and technological status means that its political “narratives” have become global. China is advancing an alternative model to Western-style democracy. Soft power is being used to change the way China is perceived abroad, and the way business with China is to be conducted. Tsu says that China wants to have the ability to promote its “narrative as the master or universal narrative for the world to abide by.” This sounds ominous. Still, it isn’t always clear from her book whether she is talking about China as a civilization, as the Chinese-speaking peoples, or as the Chinese Communist Party. She writes that “the China story no doubt aims for a triumphant narrative.” But which China story? Does it include Taiwan, where citizens enjoy even more advanced information technology than their counterparts in the People’s Republic? Or is it vaguer than that, an entity that binds all Chinese cultures?
To Xi Jinping, of course, there is no distinction. At a Party meeting in November, something called Xi Jinping Thought was defined as “the essence of Chinese culture and China’s spirit.” The question is whether the Chinese Communist government will succeed in using its soft power to make its “narrative” universally triumphant. It already has its hands full imposing official dogma on its own people. China has enough gifted scientists, artists, writers, and thinkers to have a great influence on the world, but that influence will be limited if they cannot express themselves freely. These days, many written Chinese words cannot appear at all, in printed or digital form. In the aftermath of the Peng Shuai affair, even the word “tennis” has now become suspect in Chinese cyberspace.
In the last sentence of her book, Tsu writes, “Still unfolding, history will overtake China’s story.” I’m not sure what that means. But the story of the Chinese language under Communism is mostly one of repression and distortion, which only heroes and fools have defied. In an account of language, narratives, characters, and codes, the meaning of words still matters the most. Overemphasize the medium, and that message may get lost.
Published in the print edition of the January 17, 2022, issue, with the headline “Character Arc.”